THE ACID TEST OF ‘BRITISHNESS’: DEFERENCE TO POLITICAL ELITES OR DEFENCE OF DEMOCRACY?

by Sarah Edgcumbe 

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic continues to have disastrous consequences for many people around the globe who have lost loved ones, or who are struggling to cope financially due to livelihood disruption. Domestic violence rates have increased at a staggering rate, whilst loneliness and uncertainty are having a negative effect on many people’s mental health. It is amidst these turbulent times that once again, much like the train-wreck of Brexit, the acid test of “Britishness” seems to be qualified by how deferential people can be to the political elite, as opposed to how willing they are to defend democracy and the welfare of Britain’s citizens and residents.

The popular narrative currently espoused by politicians and public alike, is that neither Covid-19, nor the government’s response to it, should be politicized. As the Queen saw fit to tell us from her multi-million pound castle; we are all in this together. Only we’re not. This jovial “we’re all in this together” nonsense is a myth. While the super-wealthy are able to socially isolate in properties the size of small villages, NHS staff continue to be sent to treat patients without adequate PPE in deliberately under-resourced hospitals. Homeless people including both Brits and destitute asylum seekers remain woefully exposed on the streets. These issues are all deeply political. To shrug off the inherently structural nature of these problems now is the equivalent of opening the proverbial gates wide and welcoming an equally devastating phenomenon in the future.

Only four months ago, in December 2019, the Conservatives voted against protecting the NHS from privatization. Grace Blakeley detailed at the time how the “NHS has been privatized by stealth for years”, culminating in Boris Johnson’s willingness to allow American healthcare companies access to the NHS – predictably to pick it apart like vultures until British people find themselves in the same situation as Americans: being made homeless because they can’t afford medical bills generated through cancer treatment, for example.

 

Life is politics, as is death. 

 

This strategy of turning the NHS into an exclusionary profit-driven vehicle is deeply political. The 2017 Conservative and DUP vote against a pay rise for nurses and firefighters was political. The recent decision to award MPs an extra £10,000 on top of their annual office-related allowance of up to £26,000 per year, in addition to their basic salary of £79,468 was greed – and again, a move which was deeply political at a time when nurses and doctors are dying for lack of adequate PPE, and increasing numbers of people are relying on food banks and other charities to survive. The Conservatives’ perpetual denigration of immigrants and xenophobic immigration policy is not only political, but also abhorrent – particularly at a time when immigrant nurses, doctors and carers are risking their lives to save others. Boris Johnson’s initial pursuance of herd immunity, rather than immediate lockdown, as a response to the pandemic was an economically-motivated political decision which has likely cost an untold number of people their lives. Life is politics, as is death. 

Those “patriots” who urge us not to politicise the response to Covid-19, and to back Boris, are doing the country a huge disservice. Why should we back a Prime Minister who has a documented history of lying (and subsequently getting fired from jobs as a result), misconduct, manipulation, corruption and generally fucking everything up? Frustratingly, the same people who tell us to back Boris and pull together to get through this, often invoke the symbolism of the Second World War and the brave British troops who fought the Nazis. What they seem to forget is that the Nazis represented fascism and ethno-nationalism, while the British troops represented democracy and freedom. The irony of British soldiers in WW2 being used to illustrate an argument against holding elected political elites accountable as a means of defending democracy appears to be lost on many. Thus this manipulative use of imagery, combined with the context within which it is deployed, represents a detrimental reimagining of the past along with a worryingly restrictive contemporary concept of citizenship. 

 

If we are to get through this pandemic together then, it is evident that a radical transformation of economic and social structures will be required. 

 

Democracy (as the near-polar opposite of the fascism the Nazis fought for), is the power of the people to govern: whether that be through direct democracy or the election of MPs as representatives of the people. British democracy has, since the 1980s, been undergoing a shift towards neoliberalism which replaces the power of the people with the power of financial capital. Preservation of markets and money now takes priority over maintaining (or improving) democratic structures, social welfare and human rights. As Arundhati Roy laments, “the crisis of modern democracy is a profound one. Free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest bidder”. 

Over two thousand years ago, Plato observed that the basic factors which endanger unity are wealth combined with poverty, as the wealthy will seek to expand their wealth by exploiting the poor. If we are to get through this pandemic together then, it is evident that a radical transformation of economic and social structures will be required. 

Contemporary British democracy is barely democratic at all. Operating to preserve the wealth of the elite, it thrives upon exclusion: exclusion of travellers, refugees, those marginalized through poverty, the homeless, women, the LGBTQ community as well as other minorities. If these groups remain excluded, demands for redistribution of wealth, increased funding for services and structural change remains relatively low. Without structural change, the corporate tax dodgers can continue to run amok, the richest will continue to get richer, and immigrants will continue to be successfully presented as the primary threat. Facilitating this status quo, the media conglomerates who represent some of the country’s most influential and wealthy individuals, will continue to successfully condition majority society with no effective platform from which a counter narrative can challenge them. 

We need to construct something radically different which will better represent all British people, as opposed to rich British people. Political scientist Zachariah Mampilly, an advocate of protest democracy, explains that “we must centre ordinary people in democratic life” because “democracy should not only be about elites competing at the ballot box”. He argues that for democracy to have meaning, “it must be something we engage in every day”. In this sense, those who engage with politics contentiously – those who hold leaders to account and challenge their authority – should be considered patriotic, rather than portrayed as misguided trouble makers. In continually testing the socio-political and socio-economic structures of governance through writing, art, demonstrations, sit-ins, squatting, boycotts, culture jamming and fly posting, the forms of structural oppression that preside over all of us are unlikely to become more regressive, instead becoming more representative and more inclusive. 

 

Ultimately, democracy means different things to different people.

 

As evidence of this, Khalid Batti argues that “the rights and freedoms we enjoy today in liberal democracies have been the result of mass actions, movements and struggles… the right to protest protects minority voices and also all those left behind by the political and economic system”. The right to protest alongside the right to challenge unjust structures of power and governance should remain at the epicentre of social aspirations and conceptualisations of democracy. We must not allow ourselves to become complacent in the face of increasing right-wing populist and jingoistic rhetoric, and we certainly should not blindly support political elites who, behind the scenes, are increasingly stripping away the NHS, our communities and our rights. 

Ultimately, democracy means different things to different people. In the film What is Democracy? Astra Taylor asks different people what democracy means to them. A young Afghan refugee describes democracy as “justice for everyone regardless of whether they are rich or poor”, while for several people, democracy means ‘freedom’, which consequentially poses the question: what is freedom? 

An Iraqi friend and women’s rights activist also defined democracy as freedom, so I asked her what freedom means to her. She described her image of freedom as “the ability to have different standards and values, whilst having an equal right to freedom of political participation and freedom of speech”. For her, democracy is an essential barrier to state corruption.

For a Syrian friend, democracy means “freedom of expression, respect, guarantee of rights and justice”. After musing upon this, I asked a Sudanese friend what democracy means to him. He defined it as “the right to live the lifestyle you choose without feeling the thick hand of the system on your back. To responsibly choose the right lifestyle for you without negatively affecting the ability of others to choose the lifestyle which is right for them”. Ultimately, it seems that the political system which constitutes your lived reality influences your understanding and expectations of democracy. 

Speaking to friends however, it is clear that in the UK we must consciously act to preserve, uphold and strive to improve aspects of British life such as rights, freedoms and justice in order to ensure that we don’t sleepwalk into a political system that the Iraqis, Syrians and Sudanese are fighting so hard to emerge from. Importantly, we must work towards ensuring that these foundations of democracy are accessible to everybody, regardless of social or economic group. The political veneer may be more palatable in the UK, but the rot underneath will be just as damaging if we don’t intervene.

Featured image credit: CC BY 2.0 Matt Brown


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